Will We Be Better Off in Four Years?

The author says that holding elected representatives accountable for results from policies and systems requires that information be transparent, accurate, and timely, and that the availability of the right information supports the “art of reasoning” which is often missing in current political discourse.

In my article Blowing the Whistle on Performance Management, I reinforced that as the fourth branch of government, We the People are responsible for holding the other three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) accountable. The 2012 elections for President, Senate and House Members provide another opportunity for voting citizens to provide feedback on performance.

The accountability issue within the political context is captured in the current political debate surrounding the question: “Are you any better off now than you were four years ago?”

Evolving strategies concerning the management and transparency of information will provide stakeholders with the information needed to assess if the results from government policies and systems indicate sustainable and acceptable rates of improvement over the next four years. The advances in information and communication technologies along with the methods for managing variability will continue to support the transformational changes needed to improve the quality and better manage the cost of government.

Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012

Thomas Jefferson remarked that, “In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion, and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.”

Holding elected representatives accountable for results from policies and systems every two, four and six years requires information and that the information be transparent, i.e., shared, available, accurate, useful, auditable and timely. Information is derived from data and can lead to knowledge, and knowledge leads to power. The availability of the right information supports the “art of reasoning”, which often seems to be missing in current political discourse.

The underlying assumption with data and information transparency is that like a jury, we will exercise our responsibility and the power that information provides to review and agree on the facts used to determine when and if change is needed and whether the change results in improvement.

A positive initiative in bringing accountability in the use tax dollars is the proposed Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012, or DATA Act. It is supported by the Data Transparency Coalition. The DATA Act integrates proven data and information management methods and tools that have been pioneered by the Department of Defense (DoD) and have the potential for providing the data and the transparency citizens need to make reason-based decisions. 

Information and Communication Technologies

I started my federal career with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), where I first learned the basic of information management. IRS is a leader in managing the information required in administering a complex tax system. They are tasked with converting legislative and regulatory requirements into forms and publications (information) that individuals and organizations are required to complete in order to comply with the law.

Commercial companies are able to use this information to independently develop tax form preparation software such as the popular TurboTax. Agreements between private companies and the IRS further help to streamline the process that reduces the costs to taxpayers and improves cycle times for the processing of refunds and payments.

The IRS’s successful collaboration with the private sector provides a proof of concept for other government organizations. In other words, the government can focus on communicating and managing information requirements that the private sector can support through the development of automated applications on a fixed and cost competitive basis.

In the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to work with the DoD’s Corporate Information Management (CIM) initiative. The scope of the transformation was to re-engineer information management within the DoD. The aim was to identify the core data needed to manage the department and then work to ensure that “data was entered one-time and shared throughout the network.” Achieving this vision is enabled through the acquisition of automated information systems on a fixed and competitive cost basis.

The CIM initiative was adjusted through changes in presidential administrations, but the aim for data to be entered one time and shared throughout the network remains an enduring requirement. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems are an interim strategy to improve quality and reduce some data redundancy. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports identify that ERP systems can be an expensive option and not without risk.

The initial methodology used within the DoD in support of CIM was based on the Integrated Definition (IDEF) methodology, which included activity (process) and data (information) modeling that was developed and funded by the Air Force. Information combined with the knowledge to manage this information is a critical capability and provides the foundation for the military’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.

In addition to serving as a civilian data administrator within the DoD, I also served as an intelligence analyst in the Army Reserve. As an intelligence analyst, I was working with information derived from methodologies and supporting technologies to produce intelligence for decision makers. It was somewhat of a surreal experience because I was working with methodologies and technologies that wouldn’t be implemented within civilian agencies for years to come.

Typically, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) guides research and development efforts that can provide the military with a 10 to 20 year head start in applying new technologies that are eventually transferred into the civilian marketplace. For example, the evolution of the information technology within the military has now evolved to the level where potential “decisions” can be made autonomously. The concept is described in the article The next wave in US robotic war: drones on their own. In the commercial sector, Google is pioneering a technology funded by a DARPA Grand Challenge that permits vehicles to drive themselves as outlined in the article Google Autonomous Cars Get Green Light In California. Google cofounder Sergey Brin has said that Google will have autonomous cars available for the general public within five years.

A Way Ahead

Federal civil servants have accepted the role for Federal employees. As described by the Office of Personnel Management, their role is “to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” We can support this objective by helping to ensure that we have the right information needed to do the job in the most effective and efficient manner possible.

Public servants are reconciled to the fact that they will never create the ideas that lead to millionaire or billionaire status. However, we can certainly support new ideas and technologies that contribute to the improved quality of life for all our citizens and can result in saving millions if not billions of tax dollars.

In addition to doing what you can to support the adoption of the DATA Act, you can also become more aware that information and communication technologies have been resulting in a subtle shift of power to the individual, i.e., the “knowledge worker.” The knowledge worker concept has been expanded to include the “knowledgeable consumer.” For example, the Internet is a source of information for consumers on the quality and cost comparisons of products and services. And we’re not too far away from having better access to information that will allow “knowledgeable citizens” to quickly judge the statements from political candidates regarding “better or worse” types of claims.

When information can be processed to support life and death decisions on the battlefield and when driving a car can be automated, so too can improvements in information technology be applied to provide We the People with the information we need to immediately assess the performance of policies and systems.

Information management technologies can play an important role in reaching a national consensus about whether we are better off now than we were four years ago and if we are taking the right actions to ensure we will continue to make progress in achieving a more perfect union.

About the Author

Timothy J. Clark retired from the federal government with 35 years of service. He is a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army. He retired at the rank of Colonel, with over 30 years of combined service in the U.S. Army, National Guard and Army Reserve. He is a strategic analyst with the American Center for Quality Leadership and is active in economic and community development in a small rural county in Indiana.